A prolific artist with a prodigious gift for stimulating the creativity of others, James Surls is one of the most important sculptors working in America today. His art blends natural forms created of wood, steel, and bronze with sophisticated, sometimes edgy imagery and content to explore fundamental dualities and paradoxes—male and female, joyous optimism and anxious foreboding, conscious rationality and unconscious intuition. Fusing personalized folk idioms with the aesthetics of high modernism, Surls's sculptures are clearly self-expressive, yet freighted with universal meaning.
This beautifully illustrated book, which accompanies an exhibition of the same name at the Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, captures an extraordinarily creative period in Surls's career—the two decades he lived and worked in Splendora, Texas. During this time, Surls established a home and artists' colony in the East Texas pineywoods, where he produced an astonishing body of work while encouraging the creativity of other visual and performing artists. Magnificent color and black-and-white images illustrate the key sculptures and works on paper that Surls created in Splendora.
Accompanying the images are essays and interviews that offer fascinating insights into Surls's artistic breakthrough in Splendora. Terrie Sultan introduces Surls's work and provides a concise biography of the artist. Eleanor Heartney places Surls's Splendora works within the larger contexts of American and international art. Artists and gallery owners John Alexander, Joseph Havel, The Art Guys, Hiram Butler, and Sharon and Gus Kopriva, as well as curator Jim Harithas and architect Peter Zweig, share lively memories of Splendora as an artist colony and of Surls's pivotal role as artistic mentor and arts impresario for the whole Houston-area arts community. James Surls and his wife Charmaine Locke add a personal signature to the book by describing how their love and their work blossomed in an atmosphere of total freedom to experiment and create.
This publication of James Surls's Splendora works clearly establishes that no other artist of Surls's generation has had a greater impact upon the development of Texas as a center of vibrant creativity. At the same time, it confirms Surls's standing within the contemporary international art world as a revolutionary who has expanded the boundaries of traditional sculpture while maintaining a high degree of aesthetic and intellectual quality.
Where does it begin? At what point do you say, "It has started"? I think the road to Splendora started when Charmaine and I headed south out of Dallas in 1976. We were on our way to the promised land—Houston, Texas. I had my red one-ton Ford and she had three pink suitcases. But together we had forever in our eyes and rhythm in our hearts. We were ready for the big dance; we knew our time was now. Like two birds circling wide around the gulf's most dynamic center, ever closing in on the right place to start the grand garden.
After several months of daily searching, Charmaine came to me and said, "I have found it—the right place." The next day she led me forty-five miles north of downtown Houston, twenty-two miles north of Intercontinental Airport, and two miles off the highway, to a twenty-by-twenty-foot cabin in the middle of the west end of the Big Thicket. We knew we were where we needed to be. This was no formal garden. It was paradise at its best, filled not only with the bloom of flowered beauty, but also with all forms of life, from that which flies to that which crawls. We now were in the primordial cauldron; what more could I ask? Charmaine had sparked my ready tender, and I now stood burning in the center of paradise, imbued with glory and filled with the belief that I could make tangible any and all that I could conceive.
I was with the right person at the right time, in the right place to fulfill the "all things are possible" notion of singular belief. I was ready for living.
James Surls makes art to embody the inherent dualities of natural forces: positive and negative, fluid and static, male and female. His work is simultaneously joyously optimistic and darkly expressionistic, and his signature forms and images—diamond shapes, whirling vortexes, needles, knives, and houses—infuse highly personalized folk idioms with the aesthetics of high modernism. His forms are imbued with a visual poetry that arises from the dexterity with which he manipulates wood, steel, and bronze to craft simple, even homespun narratives into objects that are freighted with universal meaning.
Surls balances his creative process between formal discipline and intuition. On the one hand, his compositional approach was forged from his undergraduate and graduate studies in studio art. On the other hand, like Michelangelo or Rodin, he believes in the invisible, underlying forms inherent in natural materials like wood or stone. His student work was largely abstract, drawn in part from the ordered chaos of abstract expressionism and the surrealist notion of automatism, or, as he says, "the 'just do it' mode of making." By the early 1970s, he began to take more control of the process, seeking to find the balance between his conscious artistic intentions and his more spontaneous, emotional approaches. It was at this time that recognizable imagery—figures, houses, flowers—became the visual lingua franca of his work.
Wood is his signature material, and carving and cutting are his preferred gestures. This is a natural outcome of his childhood. His father was a carpenter, and Surls grew up sawing cedar logs for lumber, making wood beams for housing construction. It pleases him that his tools are basic, traditional, and familiar. As he says, "A tool is just a tool. It's what you do with a tool that makes something great." He is as confident of his mastery of tools as he is of his artistic vision and his ability to see the possibilities trapped within natural materials. He speaks of "powerful forces waiting in the wood just to be released. But the other side of that is the powerful ability to read the possibility inherent to materials. That's my intuitive sense. I can look at a piece of wood and just know that there is a sculpture in there." The rest, he feels, is a direct process of sawing, carving, and whittling that brings the work to life. His bronzes are cast from wood constructions as well. "I don't really like the process of casting, but it's necessary. It's like making prints with a master printer; they do the work. I made the original out of wood and wooden components, and then the technicians pull the molds."
Surls's balancing act between intention and intuition is clearly illustrated by comparing his intense physical process of sculpture making with the delicate, almost ephemeral state of mind necessary for his drawings. For Surls, making sculpture isn't necessarily a solitary activity. Once he sets to work, the wrestling, sawing, and carving of enormous chunks of wood in his studio is almost a social occasion. This work requires interaction with studio assistants and often involves side conversations with visitors. "Sculpture is less intense, more like labor. I can be interrupted," he has noted. The drawings, however, are what he refers to as psychological blueprints for a particular state of mind: "Making drawings is like a performance that I do alone, me trying to picture something that doesn't exist." In Surls's drawings, the ideal of free expression, embodied in the notion of automatic writing that so captivated the surrealists, comes to the fore. Once Surls puts pencil to paper, eye is connected to hand without interruption, and he tries to push the unedited line as far as he can take it before interrupting his gesture. For example, if he is working on a figure, he will draw the entire contour in one stroke. Lines flow and turn back on themselves, start and stop, double up.
All of this linear freedom is grounded in one rule: lines made will never be erased. "I don't have rules about keeping the pencil on the paper, but I don't go back and erase. That's because I don't like the smudge marks. I don't make mistakes that would require erasing. In life, of course, I make mistakes. But when I am drawing, I can't say to myself 'Oh, I messed up.' I just can't do that. I have to step into a moment of total belief. What comes out, comes out—that's the way it was meant to be. You have to be in a state of singular belief. I can't go in with doubts or 'Oh, I hope I can do this.'"
In 1977 Surls acquired a large tract of land in Splendora, Texas, where he built a spacious studio. The ensuing twenty years in which he worked there were a period of remarkable growth and development, a time when his art "exploded" in a rapid succession of artistic breakthroughs. Surls views this time as his "romantic" period because of the synergy between his artistic development and the East Texas landscape from which he took both raw materials and his intellectual inspiration. When he discovered the property in Splendora he was primed to make a big leap. His process became even more direct when he started finding his material right in his own backyard.
A native of East Texas (he was born in Terrell in 1943), Surls graduated from Sam Houston State College in Huntsville and received a masters of fine arts from Cranbook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 1969 he returned to Texas to teach sculpture, first at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, then in 1976 at the University of Houston. In 1979 he became the founding director of the Lawndale Annex, a vibrant alternative space that grew from a warehouse housing the students' studios into the Lawndale Art and Performance Center, largely through his entrepreneurial efforts. Surls is a self-described "eternal optimist," and his infectious enthusiasm for all matters artistic made him a catalyst for a generation of young artists during these years. As an instructor and cultural impresario he encouraged artists, including Sharon Kopriva, Joseph Havel, and Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing (The Art Guys), to expand the boundaries of their social and aesthetic expressions. After leaving Lawndale and his teaching position in 1982, Surls devoted himself full-time to his studio practice and his artistic vision for the growing compound in Splendora. Since 1998 he and his family have lived in Colorado.
I met Surls shortly after I moved to Houston in 2000 to become director of Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston. I knew his work, but had not yet learned about his strong ties to the Houston art community and his long-standing relationship with the University of Houston. I also had never heard of Splendora, Texas, so when Surls and I began to talk about the possibility of a project, his time there seemed a perfect focal point for organizing a survey. Surls's artwork and career interweave a specific landscape, personal history, and the tumultuous nature of art practice in the latter half of the twentieth century into a narrative that reconciles counterculture utopianism with the rigor of postminimalist sculptural approaches. His unique blend of natural forms and sophisticated, sometimes edgy imagery and content places him securely within the broader context of art history.
James Surls: The Splendora Years, 1977-1997 is the first major scholarly investigation of Surls's work since the broad survey organized by the Dallas Museum of Art in 1984. Surls has since created some of his most significant works, and this book and exhibition provide new insights into the creative process of this most provocative mind.